Faculty Focus: Critical Thinking, Critical Change

Faculty Focus: Critical Thinking, Critical Change

Art Bettis

Ask UI Professor of Earth and Environmental Science Art Bettis today what he thinks of TILE and you’ll probably receive an enthusiastic, positive response.

Asking that same question a year ago might have earned you an opposite response.

Last year, working with Instructional Designer Jane Russell, and others in the Office of Teaching, Learning, & Technology, Bettis and co-instructor Adam Ward rebuilt a General Education course from the ground up and found the active learning environment afforded by the TILE classroom proved a powerful platform for engaging students in meaningful critical thinking.

Bettis had taught the course “Introduction to Environmental Science” many times during the last 11 years.

“It’s a really interesting topic in that almost anyone off the street can relate to something in the course,” Bettis says. 

Still, he and Ward were not satisfied with past results for students using a traditional lecture format.

“You can tell them something in lecture, have them read a book, and spit back facts and figures in a multiple choice test,” says Bettis. “But that is about all you can do.”

Given the complexity of environmental issues and how societies choose to respond to them, Bettis and Ward wanted more than merely “regurgitated answers” from students.

“We want to have students come out of there with the ability to think critically about issues,” say Bettis.

So when the opportunity to rethink the course arrived in the form of Large Lecture Transformation Project, a Provost's Office Student Success funded initiative, Bettis and Ward jumped on it. 

Guided by Russell, Bettis and Ward substantially reconfigured the class including many new components designed to support building students’ critical thinking skills.

New format in place, the spring 2014 course was taught using a blended approach, including traditional lectures, discussions in TILE classrooms, online learning, and both individual and group projects. 

As a critical element in the new design, content presented in lecture was amplified through activities taught in TILE. 

For example, to explore food systems, students were provided with containers of natural foods and processed foods. In small groups using laptops, teams researched and analyzed information about these products, answering questions such as “What were the ingredients?, How far did the ingredients travel?, and What was required to get this product to store shelves?”  These activities helped students calculate the “true” cost of these commonplace goods.

Students shared what they found to their classmates, which led to lively discussions about their personal connections to the food systems.

As good as this was, what happened next particularly pleased Bettis.

“It spilled back over into lecture, because I think people got used to talking and discussing things,” says Bettis. “Even in lecture it became much easier to have discussions, which was pretty amazing.”

Bettis is enthused with the results in TILE, especially how the redesigned course impacted students’ critical thinking skills.

“Critically thinking is not something that you do all by yourself in your head,” he  says. “There are all kinds of ways to analyze information. And one of the best ways is through peer-review.  That’s what TILE does; it’s peer review on the fly.” 

The bi-weekly sessions in TILE also helped Bettis build relationships with students not always possible in large lecture halls.

“When you see a person every week, and you talk and interact with them, you get to know them and they get more comfortable with you,” he says.  “They realize you are not just there to give them the information, but this is a learning experience that involves them. It is their job to do the learning.”

Formerly a TILE skeptic, Bettis made a 180-degree turn to TILE advocate.

“I thought this is just a technology thing,” says Bettis, “but we didn’t use the computers that much. We used the whiteboards a whole lot and it worked.”

While he admits it was not always easy, Bettis has a few tips for fellow faculty who are thinking about moving to a TILE space.

“Give it a try and go in there and don’t use the technology,” Bettis says, suggesting to start small. “Think about having a small class discussion like a seminar. Ramp it up and do the same thing.”

And, Bettis says, stick with it even if students  - or instructors – need to warm up a bit.

“At first it might be shocking, but once they get into it, they really like it,” says Bettis. “It is a really rewarding endeavor. “